Teachers are usually quick to notice struggling students in their classrooms. They're the kids who do poorly on tests, fall behind on assignments, get easily frustrated, and generally seem to be making little academic progress. Often, their attendance and behavior are problems, too.
Waiting and hoping for struggling students to find their own way usually doesn't work. Younger kids may not know how to catch up, and older kids may already have low expectations for themselves. Teachers must develop a range of strategies that work with kids who aren't making it on their own.
Remember That Reading Is Key
Research shows that one of the biggest problems for struggling students is a lack of reading skills. Children who are unsuccessful at learning to read and don't get help quickly are at risk for the rest of their academic careers and beyond.
Because of this, many elementary schools have added special programs for beginning readers. My own school adopted Reading Recovery several years ago with great success. As second grade teacher Myrajean K. said, "It's pretty hard for a kid to fall between the cracks with Reading Recovery."
The program targets the weakest readers with one-on-one instruction, and teachers are specially trained to work with students for 30 minutes a day for 12 to 20 weeks. Approximately 75 percent of Reading Recovery graduates are able to meet grade-level expectations for both reading and writing.
Further reading: When and How to Seek Help for Struggling Students
Because of the program's intensity, teachers work with Reading Recovery kids half the day and regular reading groups during the other half. Still, many educators say that any additional costs are worth it, not only because kids learn to read, but also because the program reduces special education placements.
"Before this program, I knew that some kids were just going to have a hard time with reading for years to come. This program makes a difference in kids' lives," Myrajean said.
Work with Parents to Overcome Disabilities
Nothing is more frustrating to a high school teacher than a student who needed extra help years ago but didn't get it. Marti was a student of mine who worked hard but still struggled. She handed in homework at least partially completed, but her writing skills and test scores were extremely weak.
I went to the guidance office to find out about her standardized test scores. They showed that the previous year, when she was in eighth grade, she was reading at a third-grade level. I asked the guidance counselor how it was possible that Marti never got any extra reading help before now.
"She was never referred for help," the counselor said. "Because she comes to school and works hard, I think people thought she just wasn't very smart. Teachers gave her Cs because she tried."
I met with Marti and her parents, and they agreed that she should be evaluated for special education. The tests revealed that Marti did indeed have a learning disability. She began going to the special education resource room every day. By the end of the year, although she still wasn't reading at a ninth-grade level, she had greatly improved and had learned new study skills. Not only did she do better in school, but her self-confidence rose.
Be Proactive and Get Help ASAP
School psychologist Jennifer T. frequently expresses her frustration with the number of referrals for testing she gets at the end of the year.
"I wish teachers would refer kids as soon as they see them struggling," she says. "Some kids will have lost a whole year of extra help."
It's a teacher's responsibility to advocate for their students and get them the help they need as soon as possible. Here are some steps you can take to help struggling kids:
- Get to know your students and their families. Talk to kids who are having problems and invite their parents to meet with you so you can share your concerns face-to-face.
- Use the resources and specialists available in your school. Talk to a special education teacher or psychologist in your building if you have questions about a student's work. Check your students' standardized test scores to see how they've done in prior years.
- Encourage students to participate in their own learning by assigning work that's worth their effort. Educator Deborah Meier says we should think about the kinds of work we assign. Is it necessary? Is it useful? Will it be used the next day? Meier notes that kids who know that an assigned reading will be discussed in class the next day are more likely to do it.
- Differentiate instruction. Kids learn in different ways; try to find what works best for your struggling students.
- Stay informed on intervention programs that work and explore intervention possibilities at your school.
Further reading: How to Encourage Intrinsic Motivation in Students
The most important thing you can do, though, is to act as soon as you notice a potential issue. The older a student gets, the harder it becomes to catch them up. By taking action on your struggling students' behalf, you could be changing their lives forever.